Anyone familiar with S Craig Zahler’s debut, Bone Tomahawk, will be well aware that the writer-director has a penchant for unleashing some of the most savage on-screen violence you can possibly see in American cinema. But where that Kurt Russell western treated its violence with a distanced respect, as a last resort of desperate men against impossible odds, the unbelievable gore of Brawl in Cell Block 99 is presented far more gleefully. A true grindhouse/exploitation film, it’s a deeply strange journey through a world of stomach churning, yet often oddly hilarious, killing, led by a terrifying and never better Vince Vaughn.
True Detective’s second season has already proved that Vaughn’s height makes him a very imposing fighter. Zahler picks up where that show left off, beefing Vaughn up and shaving his head to create a walking earthquake of a man who can tear apart cars with his bare hands, which might give some indication of what he can do to humans. A fight in Brawl that ends with limbs snapped in two is as tame an offering as the film gives as Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) cuts an unstoppable swathe through cops and criminals alike in his quest to save his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter).
Having been let go from his job at a garage, the dry-witted Bradley returns to an old job running drugs for his kingpin friend Gil (Marc Blucas). After a deal goes south, he ends up killing his two partners to prevent them from gunning down the police on the scene, and gets seven years in prison for his trouble. Naturally, the deal’s broker is furious, and to get even he kidnaps the pregnant Lauren, ensuring that disgustingly awful things will happen to her unless Bradley gets himself transferred to maximum security prison Red Leaf, where Cell Block 99 holds an assassination target.
The threats made against Lauren and her unborn child go too far into graphic nastiness, gratuitously upsetting in a way that even Bradley’s most brutal curb stomps aren’t. Lauren is a more fully drawn character than most women in films of this ilk though, played well by Carpenter, and given plenty of screen time before the carnage kicks off. Zahler makes a good use of the 130 minute runtime, dedicating a good chunk of build up to the relationship between the Thomases. It’s a very flawed marriage, but one that is clearly worth salvaging, so the raised stakes make for an extra burst of satisfaction once Bradley starts his vengeful rampage.
Red Leaf itself is a bizarre creation. Just as Bone Tomahawk introduced fantasy to the Wild West with cave-dwelling cannibals, Brawl has a prison reminiscent of a video game dungeon or ancient fortress, full of shrieking horror and hidden passageways, all run by a moustache-twirling evil cowboy warden (Don Johnson). Benji Bakshi’s grubby cinematography adds to the surreal feel, as does an eclectic supporting cast, from Udo Kier as the sadistic Placid Man to Fred Melamed’s campy, civility-obsessed prison intake officer.
There is something unsavoury about Brawl’s climax involving a white skinhead massacring a series of Mexican cartel goons, but it’s carried off with so much style and winking humour that the entertainment factor isn’t diminished by this unease. Hugely cathartic, if you can stomach it, the ending also manages to escape a corner that the film seems to have written itself into with an elegantly simple solution. It’s not quite as good as Bone Tomahawk, and is morally questionable, but it’s a spectacularly gory thriller set in a uniquely strange and heightened reality – a must see for genre fans, and almost guaranteed as a cult classic.